Stories of Gratitude: Neo Mei Lin
Editor’s Note: In this series, we show our appreciation for the people who have made a significant impact on our lives in a selfless, giving or life-changing way—sometimes even at the expense of themselves. And we wouldn’t be the person we are today, without their tenderness, love, support and compassion.
Every so often I get asked, “Why giant clams?” And I respond first with a chuckle, before explaining my serendipitous story with them. When I was searching for a research project to try my hand at, there were only two project listings: one was to study the physiology of lungfishes (a type of freshwater fish that has the ability to breathe air), and the other, the ecology of giant clam larvae. At the time, I didn’t know what a giant clam was, but the project met my basic principle: that no animals would be killed. So, I requested for an interview with the project supervisor to see if he wanted me.
I remember sitting in his office for my interview and being asked if I was a diver, or if I had any experience in marine biology, or if I even knew what the project was about. It was soon apparent that I was clearly inadequate for the role. Finally, he asked me, “What are you good at?” I pondered for a few moments in my seat, before replying, “Arts and crafts.” I told him how I loved to make cards during the festive seasons, about how my dad taught me some basic carpentry, and that my prized artwork was a wooden Hello Kitty doll that could rotate its head 360 degrees. After much deliberation, my interviewer agreed to become my supervisor for the project, and his decisive judgement to take a chance on me, has contributed greatly to the person that I am today.
Dr Peter Todd is originally from the U.K. He first came to Singapore to complete his doctorate degree, and he now runs one of the few marine laboratories in Singapore. We call ourselves the ‘Experimental Marine Ecology Laboratory’, which aptly describes the lab’s forte.
Trained as a carpenter in his youth, Pete’s research ideas always involve at least one power tool, from the simple hand drill to angle saws. The most commonly heard phrase in the lab was “Pete! I need help with this!” Under his patient guidance, I learnt a great deal on how to build and design good experiments with both hand and power tools. The stint also taught me the art of perseverance, when I had to repeatedly drill holes into plastic lids for my experiment.
2014 was a turning point in my career, and also the year that I started to work formally in academia. Don’t get me wrong, I love my giant clams. But I was disillusioned then with my doctorate degree, questioning the practicality of it. Feeling stressed, I was desperate for any opportunities that could help me boost my future career prospects, and knew, deep down, that I wanted to be a successful researcher just like Pete. I don’t know if it was luck, determination, or a combination of both, but I got an offer to become a junior Principal Investigator. Flattered and eager to impress my new bosses and Pete, I accepted it only to realise later that my excitement was met with disappointment in Pete.
In his eyes, I was the proverbial ‘chick that flew from the nest’, and he was upset, worried for me, and even a little angry. I tried to get him to see from my perspective and the potential in my new job, to no avail. Struggling to stay afloat while learning the new ropes, I was also plagued by guilt and gloom for possibly having ruined our great working partnership. I was determined to show Pete that things would work out and that I could survive on my own. And so, slowly but surely, I ploughed through the tough times and began to rebuild our communication. With patience, persistence and effort, we’ve since become closer, and our bond is stronger than ever before. Just a few weeks ago, I was conferred the NUS Outstanding Young Alumni Award, in recognition of my outstanding achievements and leadership in marine biology and conservation. Among my family and friends, Pete was also seated in the crowd as I stood on stage listening to my citation. From afar, I could see his face beaming with so much pride for me. In that moment of celebration, I found peace in knowing that no matter where my next job is, I can count on Pete to be my pillar of strength and wisdom.
Pete remains a constant in my changing life. I am grateful for many skills that he has taught me over the years—particularly for giving me the mental space to pursue research inquiry in the most creative and innovative manner. His open-door policy in the lab has led to numerous discussions of new ideas, research publications and collaborations, and even the occasional life advice on leading a fruitful career and family life.
So, in choosing that project almost 10 years ago, I didn’t just choose to work with giant clams. I had also chosen Pete to be my lifelong mentor. And to quote A.A. Milne, “We’ll be friends until forever, just you wait and see.”